Many years ago, I took a train from nowhere to nowhere.
No, really. It was an amazing journey. I was traveling to a place called Ranchi in the state of Jharkhand (It used to be Bihar back then). I took the night train from Calcutta and that being the month of May, when the orange sun turns red, I was hoping to get some cool mountain air in Ranchi. There is this place called Muri Junction, about sixty kilometers from Ranchi, where the plains end and the mountains start. In those days, they would stop the train for an hour and change the engine, as if they were feeding the mules before the tough trek began. Sometimes, the mules would refuse to budge and there would be a two hour delay. Then, they would stop the overnight train and let the other trains pass, since those would be the ones on time. After a while, an hour would turn into a few hours, and sometimes, half a day. This was one such half a day.
A fellow passenger asked me what I was going to do in Ranchi. When he heard that I was simply escaping Calcutta for the hills, he suggested that I try a quieter place called Hazaribagh. Apparently, I could just hop on to a passenger train from Muri and go to a place called Ramgarh, though not the same one where Gabbar Singh once lived and (presumably) died. This was a different Ramgarh, but I could take a bus from there to Hazaribagh, which according to him was cool enough to shelter a thousand tigers at this time of the year. It just happened to be a coincidence that the passenger train was on the next track and ready to go. I was not known to be an impulsive creature. In fact, if I ever faced the dilemma of Mr. Indiana Jones, on whether I should jump off a cliff to escape a group of marauding cannibals, I would have probably opened my book on negotiations and patiently read Chapter 12 on Negotiating as if your life depends on it.
But this, was a different day.
The Muri-Barkakana Passenger, as it was officially known, became my ride to the city where a thousand tigers were waiting for me. As I found out later, it was popularly known as the Moongphali Express, or The Peanut Express, since the floors were seldom swept and were full of peanut shells. But this train changed my entire perspective on life, and how to live it. By writing this blog, I am simply paying tribute to the many nameless passengers I travelled with on that fateful day, when, like the Buddha, I attained my own Nirvana.
Bihar was an extremely poor state with a complete lack of governance. The southern part of it, where I was travelling was the neglected stepchild. Yet, when the engine hooted, a lot of people I was travelling with clapped with joy. I found much later that Italians applaud when airplanes land. Apparently, they too are a very happy group of people. After a while, I realized that I had lucked out. I was actually traveling on a train pulled by a steam-engine. It is every schoolboy's fantasy to ride on a steam engine, I actually got to ride on one that would get phased out in a few years. And my fellow passengers were totally oblivious to how spoilt they were.
My fellow passengers could actually be described by the phrase "motley crowd" very well. There were a few well dressed people, probably government employees in this part of the world. Then, there were a bunch of people who looked like miners that had just finished the night shift, since they were all covered in dust and soot. There were farmers, with their vegetable baskets. And yes, there was a guy carrying a small goat. You simply could not travel on a train in Bihar in those days, and not see the guy with the goat. He just had to be there. There was a cauliflower lady, about whom, I will write a separate post some other day. And there was a ticket checker, who did not check any tickets.
In that three hour journey on that day, I came as close to seeing a boatload of happy people (no pun intended) as I have ever seen in my life. These were poor people back then, and unless there has been a real estate boom in the backwaters of Jharkhand since, they must be poor people now. Since then, I have travelled halfway across the world, met people from many cultures, seen the stock market go up and down many times, seen a few booms and busts and become a more sombre human being, as far as looking at life goes. I have tried to search for happiness amongst things around me, but I don't remember seeing such a happy group of people ever again.
In my Blog, I will try to write about those people on the peanut express and why I think they were so happy that day. I will also write about the things that make me happy or sad or the various shades of gray in between.
Today's India is intimidating. There are no tigers left for Jim Corbett to shoot, and the people responsible, are probably scarier than anything Mr. Corbett would sign up to shoot. The gray mountains of Ruskin Bond are dug up for iron and steel that can be shipped to China for the cheap bicycle in my neighborhood store. R.K. Narayan's Malgudi has a few high-rise buildings now and I hear the local MP is pitching for a three lane bypass to the six-lane highway, where the archaeologist, Dr. Bandhopadhyaya, dug up the Roman statue. And, Mr. Khushwant Singh is writing about what it means to be old, in an India, that is getting old.
Stay tuned, I will be here, sharing my thoughts of the India that I love and miss. More later...